The chatter surrounding the World Cup—sorry, the FIFA World Cup—has largely centered on the corruption and absurdity of holding the tournament in the dead of winter in the obscenely rich (and just plain obscene) autocracy of Qatar.
Whether Qatar is an improvement over the 2018 host, Russia, is open to debate. But the Qatari regime’s attempt at “sportwashing,” like that of many an Olympic host before it, may be backfiring by casting a glaring light on the country’s ghastliness for Western viewers who previously might not even have known Qatar was a country. The relentless PSAs that the Qatari government has been running during commercial breaks are not helping.
(Meanwhile, Russia’s team has been banned entirely this time around, owing to a certain unpleasantness unfolding in Ukraine. FIFA getting on its high horse over Putin’s misdeeds is rather rich, and largely a self-serving PR gesture, even if it was still the right thing to do.)
Soccer, of course, is the least of it when it comes to the West’s relationship with the repressive regimes of the Middle East, as Tom McTague astutely summarized in a recent piece for The Atlantic:
Qatar hosting the soccer World Cup is like Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. It should not have happened, but the very fact that it has only exposes how bad things have become.
Underlying the shame of the World Cup in Qatar and the petrostate ownership of European soccer is this banal reality: These states are our diplomatic and commercial allies. We in the West not only accept their money for our sports teams, but we buy their fossil fuels and in return sell them arms. And we seal the deal by placing our hands on weird glowing orbs in the desert to profess our friendship. To expect sports to act as some honorable exception while the rest of society is trying to make as much money as possible—regardless of the morality or long-term security of their countries—is ridiculous.
Or to put it another way, in the blunt words of my friend Tom Hall of The Back Row Manifesto, a far more knowledgeable and fanatic soccer buff than I, “I don’t know why everything has to have the joy sucked out of it by corrupt greedy assholes, but here we are.”
But amid all this obvious disgracefulness, there is another grim story with an authoritarian bent that is also unfolding at this tournament.
ORDEM E PROGRESSO
In international football there’s a saying that everyone’s second favorite team, after their own, is Brazil, owing to the elegance with which that country plays the game, and the sheer infectious joy of its fans.
But Brazil, as we know, has only recently ejected the neo-fascist demagogue Jair Bolsonaro—the so-called “Trump of the tropics”—in favor of the return of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known just as Lula, the progressive leader who previously served two terms as president in the ‘00s. Many were surprised that Bolsonaro did not go further in questioning the results of the vote, refusing to cede power, or perhaps even resorting to violence in a self-coup. (After all, even Donald did that.) As it stands, matters in that country remain touch-and-go.
Bolsonaro did lots of horrible things in his four years in office—like hastening the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, thereby accelerating the global climate emergency and putting the very survival of the planet at risk. So there’s that. But he also managed to fuck up another of Brazil’s greatest natural resources, which is soccer.
During the course of the tense presidential campaign, Bolsonaro’s supporters co-opted the national team’s famous canary yellow jerseys as their own. What was once a symbol of national unity, a sea of yellow in the stands—and in the streets—became a vile political statement of right wing nationalism. It’s not unlike the way the Republican Party has seized the Stars & Stripes and other icons of American patriotism as its emblems and its alone, to the point where many progressives and other Americans reflexively recoil when they see the US flag displayed, knowing that often as not, a gun-toting, Big Lie-believing, COVID-denying Trump supporter is behind it. That is a theft that we ought not let stand, by the by, which is why I have an American flag decal on the bumper of my car, right next to my BIDEN/HARRIS decal, just to let Republicans know they don’t own that flag, nor patriotism full stop. (Tellingly, it has drawn some dirty looks and even shouted insults on the Jersey Turnpike.)
But the desecration of Brazilian football went far beyond wardrobe. Bolsonaro also secured the public support of several players on the national team, including its marquee superstar and most prolific scorer, Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, who in the Brazilian style goes by the mononym Neymar. (You know, like Charo, or Madonna.)
To give you an idea of the weight that endorsement carries, imagine Tom Brady, Tom Hanks. Oprah, and Beyonce all rolled into one, coming out for Trump.
It’s so ugly that even Glenn Greenwald knows it.
One of the three or four best players in the world by any measure, Neymar, who plays his club ball for star-studded Paris Saint-Germain, isn’t the only right winger on the Brazilian squad. The team captain Thiago Silva, of Chelsea, and former national team player Lucas Moura, of Tottenham Hotspur, are also in Bolsonaro’s camp, to name but two. But Neymar is the most high profile.
(He’s got some other problems as well. Neymar, his family, and FC Barcelona are currently on trial in Spain over alleged fraud and corruption surrounding his transfer to that club in 2013 from his previous owners, Santos of Brazil. The Brazilian Supreme Court threw out a related tax evasion charge against him in 2016.)
Reckoning with the odious political beliefs of our favorite athletes, artists, and others is nothing new, and in some ways, it’s unfair to single out one player or one team or one country, even when it’s the superstar player on the number one team on the planet. So many of these players, managers, and owners, not to mention their fan bases, or the governments they play for, are despicable, politically speaking. But it is especially sad to have the longstanding joy of watching Brazilian football tainted by the current wave of right wing shitbaggery. And to have that unfold during a World Cup in the borderline slave state of Qatar is a one-two punch of crappiness, bad vibes, and generally grim commentary on the state of the world.
OLÉ OLÉ OLÉ OLÉ
I am of the generation of Americans who came to soccer in the 1970s, during the AYSO years, after years of playing Pop Warner football (and lacrosse when I could find it). It was a time, we were told, when the sport would finally catch on and conquer the US the way it had long before conquered the rest of the world. The reasons are self-evident. It’s an elegant and exciting game both to play and to watch, and one that requires almost no equipment, such that even the poorest barefoot child in the most poverty-stricken favela can play, with a ball made of masking tape. You don’t even need a hoop, or a ball that bounces. Crucially, it’s also sport where speed and skill are king and size is not the be-all and end-all, unlike say, American football or basketball. (It doesn’t hurt, though, not only for goalkeepers and defenders, but also attacking players. See: Erling Haaland.)
Following soccer, you are part of a global culture, which brings rewards well beyond the sport, or “sport” full stop, as they say in Britain. It’s also fun to root for the US in a realm where waving the Stars & Stripes is not an arrogant display of hypernationalism from the most powerful kid on the block, but an expression of identification with and support for a scrappy underdog.
It took a bit longer than predicted, but soccer has arguably—finally—ascended to front rank status in the US, even if it has not surpassed the popularity of football, baseball, or basketball. At my daughter’s middle school here in Brooklyn, I never see kids wearing NFL jerseys, but I see a lot of kids wearing the shirts of Chelsea, Barcelona, Liverpool, PSG, and Juventus. (Admittedly the situation is very different with my in-laws in Philly, where the Eagles are ubiquitous.)
Likewise, time was when the World Cup was as obscure and shrug-eliciting in America as Robbie Williams, not must-see viewing and water cooler conversation. And weird as a winter World Cup is, it’s likely increased the tournament’s visibility and viewership in the US by being held during the holidays, when people are home and watching TV, rather than in summer.
For me, this makes the tenth World Cup I have followed. I was a brand new US Army lieutenant freshly arrived in West Germany during the ‘86 tournament, held in Mexico, the first time I had taken notice of the event. I had not experienced anything like it, omnipresent on televisions in the homes and the bars and on the streets of the football-mad FRG. I watched Maradona score the infamous Hand of God goal against England in the semifinals (or my faded memory wants to believe I did), and Argentina beat the Germans in the heartbreaking final, causing Wagnerian levels of sturm und drang in my local Hessian gasthaus.
Eight years later, in 1994, I was living in California when the World Cup was held in the US for the first time. Brazil played its opening round games at Stanford Stadium, and its army of boisterous fans took up residence on the Peninsula for the month, dancing through the streets on game days like it was Carnival in Rio. Palo Alto was still a sleepy university town at the time, with the first dotcom boom barely beginning to ripple. I worked at one of the few bars in town—the Blue Chalk Café—which was packed night and day with crazy Brazilians in canary yellow and green and blue. I even got to see Brazil play two games in the flesh, a team that included the likes of Romario, Cafu, Jorginho,and a 17-year-old Ronaldo. Ironically, it was Brazil that knocked the US out of the tournament in a round-of-16 match played at Stanford on the Fourth of July.
When Brazil moved on to play the subsequent rounds down in Pasadena, Sweden and Romania rolled into town to play their quarterfinal. The bar stayed decked in brilliant yellow and blue, this time of the Nordic cross, as the Swedish fans partied just as hard as the Brazilians, and were just as joyful in their Scandinavian way. They had a lot of trouble, however, with the syncopated Brazilian music we had taken to playing for the past month. Eventually one of the Swedes handed us a CD of their preferred soundtrack, and the crowd erupted at the strains of four-on-the-floor, ABBA-style Europop.
For its part, Brazil went on to win its record fourth Jules Rimet Trophy, beating Italy on penalties in a scoreless final played in the Rose Bowl, the first and only time the World Cup was ever decided on PKs. (The Brazilians won a fifth in 2002.)
How long ago that now feels. One measure of that passage of time: Alexi Llalas, the red-bearded wild man defender of the ’94 US team, a guy for whom the seven-second delay was invented, is now a clean-cut, square-jawed, occasionally crotchety you-kids-get-off-my-lawn elder statesman among the US commentators.
GET YOUR KICKS IN ‘26
I don’t know how Brazil will fare in this tournament. They’re one of the favorites, but my money is on France, the defending champ, for a rare repeat. Neymar hurt his ankle in Brazil’s opening match against Serbia and sat out the next two; he was back in force for the win over South Korea in the round-of-16, converting a penalty kick and notching an assist as well. (He now trails Pele by just a single goal as Brazil’s all-time leading scorer, albeit with a Maris-like asterisk, as it took him a third more games to reach that milestone.) Meanwhile, Richarlison had two goals in that Serbia match, the second of which was one of the most beautiful strikes you’ll ever see, an acrobatic, capoeira-like bicycle kick. But the truly brilliant part was the little flick with the left foot that set it up.
Ironically, Brazil’s dark turn comes at a time when Pele himself—still the most iconic footballer of all time, and the man most responsible for popularizing soccer in the US during his turn with the still-beloved New York Cosmos—is seriously ill with a respiratory infection. If that’s not emblematic, I dunno what is. (The latest word is said to be encouraging. The whole world wishes him well.)
I don’t hold the sins of Bolsonaro against the Brazilian people, let alone their football team, any more than I hold Trump against our own country. On the contrary: in places suffering from political oppression, a national sporting team can be one of the few outlets for collective relief and expression of genuine national pride, not the bullshit neo-fascist kind, and even, in some cases, dissent. Witness the bravery of the Iranian national team at this same World Cup, refusing to sing their own national anthem in solidarity with ongoing protests back home over the murder of Mahsa Amini. This is no empty gesture, but one with potentially severe repercussions for those players and for their families. The Iranian government subsequently ordered the team to sing or face the consequences; the players complied with half-hearted mumbling, with the whole world watching. Already, it has arrested Voria Ghafouri, a well-known player left off its World Cup squad, for his comments criticizing the regime.
This sort of “forced patriotism” is the Colin Kaepernick saga writ large. It is a bleak irony that the same American nationalists who ostentatiously proclaim that they “kneel for the cross and stand for the flag,” who think Kaep is a “traitor” who ought to be thrown in jail (or worse), and who loudly despise the “ragheads” of Persia (whom they frequently misidentify as Arabs), are possessed of the same love-it-or-leave-it impulse.
But it’s simply not as easy as it once was to thrill to the Brazilian team, and certainly not as unimpeachably joyful to watch certain players, or to see the sea of throbbing, delirious yellow in the stands and not wonder which of those fans are onboard with the Bolosonaran neo-fascism roiling their country. A fair number of them, the numbers suggest. It’s the same queasy feeling I get when I look at any large gathering of my own countrymen these days and wonder: Which side are you on?
Of course, there are far greater problems in the world than this. But it remains a shame that the days of happily rooting for Brazil are over, let alone in a World Cup absurdly being held in a shamelessly corrupt Middle Eastern monarchy, thanks to a shamelessly corrupt FIFA, which went ahead with this farce even after being crucified for its own patently obvious graft. What could be more fitting for the present moment?
The right wing sickness that Brazil is fighting off is on the rise in Italy and Israel, on the wane in France (I think), continuing to fester in the Philippines and Hungary and Turkey and Russia, and just suffered a welcome setback here at home in the November midterms. But we are still far from being able to exhale and consider it eradicated, or even fully contained.
The 2026 World Cup will be held in North America, jointly hosted by Canada, the United States, and Mexico. I can’t speak for our northern or southern neighbors, but when it arrives, let’s hope that we won’t be talking about a third straight World Cup held in a fucking autocracy.
Photo: Brazilian striker and Bolsonaro supporter Neymar Jr. Credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images.